05/02/2014 10:44 am ET Updated Jun 29, 2014

Slaves to the Past: The Bundys and Sterlings of 'Post Racial' America

When we talk about slavery in America, we talk about it from the perspective of black people as victims, and white people as perpetrators of evil. Conversations on slavery lack so much nuance that most adult Americans' knowledge of the American slave system does not go beyond a 7th grade textbook understanding. Cliven Bundy proved that when he claimed that slaves enjoyed "picking cotton and having a family life." I don't know Bundy, so I choose to believe he is not a hateful person. He is, however, grossly undereducated about American history. There is no way he could understand what it means for our society right now that for over half of our existence a significant portion of the population was classified by the U.S. government as sub-human -- property, cattle, "chattel," which is ironic considering Bundy's occupation.

The reason we romanticize the Old South -- the reason Paula Deen gets excited about black servers at parties with Old Southern themes -- is because we are in collective denial about the effects of slavery on this country. As Coretta Scott King once said: "Hate is too great a burden to bear. It injures the hater more than it injures the hated." In order for people to exist in a world where they identify other humans as cattle, in order to suppress the instinctual pull of shared humanity, a society has to be very ill.

For his role as slave owner Edwin Epps in 12 Years A Slave, Irish/German actor Michael Fassbender said he had to find a way to contextualize a man living in "an unnatural state of living, an unnatural status quo... a 'normality' with so much damage to all of those involved." He recognized that to play the role true to the person Edwin Epps was, he had to take on not only a deeply troubled individual, but a deeply troubled society. I found myself wondering if an American actor could have captured the darkness of his own history in such a way.

We don't discuss the impact slavery had on white Americans. We don't learn in history class that according to the law, slave bodies (male and female) were literally their slave owner's to use however he pleased. The textbooks don't tell us if the country healed in the face of a history that taught otherwise normal humans to peel fingernails off of another human as punishment or for sport, or what it means that our nation's Declaration of Independence was written for "all men" except for the black people who helped build it. We certainly don't talk about how in the entire span of American history it is not black men who have left the most black children behind, but rather white men who created a population of mixed-race children whose offspring are present day Americans -- both black and white.

The people who existed in slave societies inherited generations of psychoses that we as a country have never addressed. That may be why Cliven Bundy sees no problem referring to other humans as "the negro" (similar to how a nature show might refer to an animal it is profiling). That may be why Donald Sterling can have a distaste for black people while also profiting off of them. It may be why Ronald Reagan's administration had such success making black women the face of welfare even though by the numbers the majority of people on welfare are white. It may be why conversations on reparations for African Americans typically occur either in jest or with great contempt.

Meanwhile, Germany has paid "$89 billion in compensation mostly to Jewish victims of Nazi crimes over six decades". In the first half of the 20th century Germany treated humans like rodents and murdered them systematically and in cold blood -- all because they were Jewish. They made orphans of thousands of children, stripped away every bit of property and wealth, and altered an entire demographic landscape -- just as the U.S. did to its slaves. Germany took so much during the Holocaust that no amount of money could ever repair what they had broken, but it was specifically their responsibility to try. The U.S., on the other hand, set its victims to navigate the world alone -- a world which was built specifically to exclude them. It is true African Americans living today are not the victims of slavery. What exists now is what happens when no responsibility is taken for picking people up from the very bottom depths where they had been forced to live for 300 years.

This is not meant as an indictment of white America. What this is, is an attempt to highlight how what happened in our past effects us now, and to point out that it is not just poor black people who are the evidence of that past. The underlying racism we want to pretend doesn't exist in "post racial America" is very real because our history is real. Denial makes people feel better only until it doesn't.

We can keep living in denial, we can keep romanticizing the Old South, or we can be brave like Americans are supposed to be. We can admit our flaws, and work to address them and move forward honestly instead of with the cloud of our denied history dangling over us well into the 21st century.